I see this poem, with that wonderfully evocative last line about the brilliant silence, as relating properly to one of those first fine days in early March, but spring our way has been so late this year that it was not till last Saturday we had weather of the kind to bring this poem to mind. Now we are in the middle of a mini-heatwave and the countryside is going mad with bluebells and blossom, as if the whole dammed-up season has burst its banks and overflowed in one day.
From ‘Spring Nature Notes’
The sun lies mild and still on the yard stones.
The clue is a solitary daffodil – the first.
And the whole air struggling in soft excitements
Like a woman hurrying into her silks.
Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping
Changing their minds, in soft excitements,
Warming their voyage and trying their voices.
The trees still spindle bare.
Beyond them, from the warmed blue hills
An exhilaration swirls upward, like a huge fish.
As under the waterfall, in the bustling pool.
Over the whole land
Spring thunders down in brilliant silence.
1998 saw the publication of Ted Hughes’s ‘Birthday Letters’, a verse-chronicle of the poet’s troubled marriage to fellow-poet Sylvia Plath. I read it when it first came out, which is a touch hypocritical of me since I have reservations about how far famous poets should go in feeding the biographical industry that tends to spring up around them. Of course it can be argued that an understanding of the life is necessary to a full understanding of the work, but I don’t know – is our appreciation of the ‘Iliad’, for example, really much impaired by our knowing nothing whatsoever about Mr Homer’s personal life, let alone Mrs Homer’s? Still, when these things are on offer it is hard to look away, and I have to admire Hughes’s striving for what must often have been a painful veracity.
Inevitably with a collection like this the quality of the poems is a bit uneven, but there are plenty marked by Hughes’s characteristic raw energy and startling powers of observation. I pondered which to feature. ‘Daffodils’? ‘Flounders’? ‘Red’? ‘Robbing Myself’? (there really should be more poems that give a starring role to potatoes). But finally I went for this piece with its darkly sensuous imagery and, at the end, its wistful tenderness.
You Hated Spain
Spain frightened you. Spain
Where I felt at home. The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.
You did not know the language, your soul was empty
Of the signs, and the welding light
Made your blood shrivel. Bosch
Held out a spidery hand and you took it
Timidly, a bobby-sox American.
You saw right down to the Goya funeral grin
And recognized it, and recoiled
As your poems winced into chill, as your panic
Clutched back towards college America.
So we sat as tourists at the bullfight
Watching bewildered bulls awkwardly butchered,
Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier
Just below us, straightening his bent sword
And vomiting with fear. And the horn
That hid itself inside the blowfly belly
Of the toppled picador punctured
What was waiting for you. Spain
Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver
You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations
No literature course had glamorized.
The juju land behind your African lips.
Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.
One of the more startling aspects of Philip Larkin’s literary judgment is his dismissal of Ted Hughes as (I quote from a recently published letter) ‘no good at all’. Now, I can see why some of Ted’s wilder vatic utterances might lead one to the view that he was a bit bonkers, but surely scattered through his perhaps over-generous oeuvre are enough fine pieces to make Larkin’s judgment inexplicable. Here’s one that I particularly admire, a Breughelesque view of a football match that one feels only Ted could have written.
Football at Slack
Between plunging valleys, on a bareback of hill
Men in bunting colours
Bounced, and their blown ball bounced.
The blown ball jumped, and the merry-coloured men
Spouted like water to head it.
The ball blew away downwind –
The rubbery men bounced after it.
The ball jumped up and out and hung on the wind
Over a gulf of treetops.
Then they all shouted together, and the ball blew back.
Winds from fiery holes in heaven
Piled the hills darkening around them
To awe them. The glare light
Mixed its mad oils and threw glooms.
Then the rain lowered a steel press.
Hair plastered, they all just trod water
To puddle glitter. And their shouts bobbed up
Coming fine and thin, washed and happy
While the humped world sank foundering
And the valleys blued unthinkable
Under the depth of Atlantic depression
– But the wingers leapt, they bicycled in air
And the goalie flew horizontal
And once again a golden holocaust
Lifted the cloud’s edge, to watch them.
Now You Have To Push
Lumpish roots of earth cunning
So wrinkle-scarred, such tomes
Of what has been collecting centuries
At the bottom of so many lanes
Where roofs huddle smoking, and cattle
Trample the ripeness.
Now you have to push your face
So tool-worn, so land-weathered,
This patch of ancient, familiar locale,
Your careful little moustache,
Your gangly long broad Masai figure
Which you decked so dapperly to dances,
Your hawser and lever strength
Which you used, so recklessly,
Like a tractor, guaranteed unbreakable,
Now you have to push it all –
Just as you loved to push the piled live hedge-boughs –
Into a gathering blaze
And as you loved to linger late into the twilight,
Coaxing the last knuckle embers,
Now you have to stay
Right on, into total darkness.
I see Ted Hughes’s oeuvre as a sort of marvellous midden; some of it lies beyond the range of my sympathy, or perhaps I should say comprehension, but every so often you come across a poem like this heartfelt elegy for his father-in-law Jack Orchard that simply stuns you with its power.